Pico Iyer once said that visiting new places is like having a conversation. I couldn’t agree more. Countries, cities, and neighborhoods talk and whisper to us both the obvious and the subtle just as intently as we get to know them. It is important that we listen with an open mind and an audacious spirit so that we can be led somewhere surprising. “The more we leave assumptions at home, the more we can hear what the destination is trying to say to us.” Here are some of the things that I/we did in Chile to keep the conversation going:
Exploring the neighborhood
After work at INTA, I usually spent my free time roaming around. Moving through Patricia Isidora on foot gave me an intimacy of my neighborhood, replacing abstractions with more human truths. Running also offered a great opportunity to meet and converse with the neighbors.
Visiting the bookstore and reading the local newspaper
These are great ways of learning about the interests of the locals. For example in a galleria in Providencia, the bookshop was bulging with books on Patagonia, the Atacama, Neruda, Gustavo Cerati, and yes, Obama. Skimming the local newspaper La Tercera also opened for me a new door to the city. Headlines like “Negocian show de Hannah Montana para el Festival de Viña del Mar” told me much more about Chileans than the newspaper thought it was telling.
Riding the Metro to somewhere random
This might not be advisable all the time, but taking advantage of the Metro, for me, was enjoyable and surprising. On one instance, I found myself in Franklin where a Bio Bio was taking place, an ultra-cheap flea market with a buzzing crowd and amazing street food. It was a very memorable experience- digging through goods, bargaining with the vendors, eating barbeque with one hand like everyone else, feeling my way through the spirited crowd.
Getting to know art and history in a fun way
While we also learned about Chilean art and history through the traditional museums (some were free on Sundays), we also took delight on visiting Pablo Neruda’s three homes in Bellavista, Valparaiso, and Isla Negra. Through cheap guided tours, not only did we learn about the beloved poet in a societal and political context, we also enjoyed taking in the whimsicality expressed in his collections of paintings, shells, maps, statues and china, and also through the very conceptual architecture of his homes.
Exciting our taste buds
From our host-families’ kitchen to authentic restaurants to the INTA cafeteria to street stands, we surely had an interesting taste of Chilean cuisine. The food tradition is a blend of Spanish, indigenous, Western, and Middle Eastern influences that stands out full of character and rich in flavor. I certainly enjoyed eating the cheese empanadas, the avocado-filled completos, the Chilean sausage-in a bun called choripan, the homey, pasta dish pantrukas, and the ever-so- popular street food called sopaipillas. A lot of people will say that it is not comparable to the distinctive palettes of Argentina and Peru, but one must leave their assumptions and ideas at the table in order to fully enjoy what Chile has to offer.
Watching sport/cultural events
It would take a mighty effort to get me to watch a dance show in Detroit, but It was definitely not the case when we planned on checking out a Tango show in La Florida for I knew it would be a night to remember. Moreover, witnessing the Chilean victory against Bolivia in a World Cup qualifying game and watching a free magic show in Santiago was nothing like seeing a sports game or a magic show back home.
Participating in the Santiago Nightlife
It might be better to call it a “morning” life since the fun always started past midnight all the way till the break of dawn. Whether it be in the slick, American-style bars of Providencia, the hip and informal cafes of Bellavista, or in the authentic Valaparaiso, the South American nightlife culture had dazzled us. Dancing to the tunes of Reggaeton, listening to live Spanish music after 12 pm, and imbibing a glass or two of the classic Chilean pride called PiscoSour con Coca Cola were not only fun, but also cool cultural experiences.
Exploring the contrasts
Chile is a country of geographical contrasts. It was sublime to be able to hike the great, snow-capped Andes, scrutinize ancient geoglyphs in the deserts of Iquique up north, explore the Pacific coastlines of Isla Negra and Viña del Mar, surf the waves of Pichilemu, and bathe in the hot springs and ride the rough currents of the southern town of Pucon.
Discovering neighboring countries
Discovering Chile's neighboring countries was also a great way to learn about South American culture in general, dissolving preconceived distinctions and replacing them with a renewed, broader perspective. It was only when I stepped outside of Chile did I fathom that the country was also just a part of a vast and diverse Latin American family. On a 4-day weekend a fellow student and I treated ourselves to the “Paris of South America”- Buenos Aires, Argentina for some Tango, urban biking, free cultural tours, tombstone hunting, charming women, maté tea, and real good beef. After the conclusion of the program, I spent time backpacking in Peru wherein I saw Incan ruins in Cuzco and Machu Picchu, hiked the famous Huayna Picchu, gazed at amazing landscapes at the Sacred Valley, drank coca tea, ate ceviche, and biked around the capital city of Lima.
Giving back to the community
Santiago never failed to speak to us about the realities of social inequalities, where wealth and poverty exist in such close proximities. We devoted one of our weekends to volunteering in a neighborhood in La Reina. We worked with an organization affiliated with the Universidad de Catolica that focused on community empowerment especially on children.